Is Japan Squandering Opportunity for Renewables after Fukushima Crisis?

Japan is wasting the opportunity of the Fukushima disaster by failing to use the crisis and public opposition toward nuclear reactors to form an energy mix more reliant on renewable energy, Canadian author, environmentalist and geneticist David Suzuki says.

“Fukushima gives the opening that if they really want to get off nukes, then they really have to go and do something else,” said Suzuki, who joined the board of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation last year at the urging of Softbank Corp. founder Masayoshi Son.

Suzuki’s comments echo a common refrain among critics of nuclear energy that leaders could have used the atomic meltdown to push alternative forms of energy. That effort suffered a setback last month when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told lawmakers he’ll restart Japan’s reactors once safety measures are in place.

“There’s a huge opportunity that the government, because it is so tightly tied to the private energy sector, has refused to acknowledge,” Suzuki said in an interview. “It is an opportunity being squandered in the drive to get the reactors up and running again.”

Two years after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and crisis in Fukushima led to the closing of all except two of Japan’s 50 nuclear plants, Japan gets only a fraction of its energy from clean sources. About 7.4 percent of primary energy came from renewables in the year ending March 2012, with 3.4 percent from hydro and 4 percent from others such as solar, geothermal and wind, according to data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Incentives for Renewables

Still, Japan has moved to bolster clean energy. The nation began an incentive program in July, increasing solar capacity and prompting investment interest from companies such as Softbank and Orix Corp. Officials also are considering cutting the time needed for environmental assessments for wind projects.

Aided by solar incentives, Japan may become the world’s third-largest market for solar power in 2013 behind China and either the U.S. or Italy, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Domestic shipments of solar cells and modules more than doubled to 1,003 megawatts in the three months to Dec. 31, the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association said on Feb. 26.

“Japan has a real opportunity now to confront its long-term energy future, and the Japanese are such that if a man like Mr. Son is able to get an organization to come up with a blueprint, they well might be a country to say, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’” Suzuki said in the telephone interview Feb. 21 from his office in Vancouver.

Geothermal Potential

Japan’s best hope may be its geothermal resources, said Suzuki, subject of the 2010 film “Force of Nature,” a synopsis of the geneticist’s views on his life’s work as a science communicator and advocate for environmental preservation over economic expansion.

“Geothermal can be a huge source of energy very quickly,” Suzuki said, adding that Japan is also well-positioned to take advantage of developments in tidal power.

“Japan is a model already to the lie that economic growth is the key to our future,” he said. “If they can really show an alternative to nukes and fossil fuels, then they will be the poster boy for the renewable energy for the future.”

Geothermal Advantages

For a nation steeped in the traditions of a bathing culture fueled by geologically-active hotsprings, Japan has a dearth of projects harnessing the reserves of energy stored underground to produce electricity.

Japan has 539 megawatts of geothermal capacity currently operating, a quarter of its wind capacity and almost 14 times less than solar, according to data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance for 2012.

One advantage to geothermal energy is that it offers a relatively constant supply of energy, unlike wind and solar, which fluctuate with breezes and clouds.

“The benefit is that it is baseload energy, unlike wind and solar,” said Yugo Nakamura, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Tokyo. “Japan should take reasonable measures to boost geothermal, but the country also needs to take every measure to boost energy supply from all sources.”

Japan has the potential to produce 23,000 megawatts of geothermal power, according to a report on the global market prepared by the Washington, D.C.-based Geothermal Energy Association in May.

“I know the PM is under huge pressure from the energy sector to get those reactors back up and running again,” said Suzuki, who took the top spot as Canada’s most trusted individual in a 2011 survey conducted by Reader’s Digest magazine. “It is unfortunate because the grassroots in Japan are desperate to get off nukes.”

Copyright 2013 Bloomberg

Lead image: Opportunity sign via Shutterstock

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